Christian Petzold knows something about obsession: Six of the seven movies he has directed over the last 15 years have starred Nina Hoss, and the main character in the other one is named Nina.
He and his muse team up again in “Phoenix.” It takes its title not only from a night club crucial to the story but the legend of the bird that dies in flame, then gets reborn from the ashes. Both main characters here fixate on something – one on love, one on money – and these obsessions carry them toward an abrupt, effective ending.
Movie critics have compared this picture to “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece about a man who tries to shape a girl into an exact copy of his late wife. But that widower acted out of love; Johnny, the heel in “Phoenix,” wants to claim a fortune. (The screenplay by Petzold and Harun Farocki adapts Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel “Le retour des cendres,” or “The return from the ashes.”)
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Nelly Lenz (Hoss) goes back to postwar Berlin in the custody of a fellow Jew, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf). Concentration camp guards beat and shot Nelly, whose face has been reconstructed so she looks almost exactly like her old self – but only almost.
Lene wants to emigrate to Palestine, where an apartment awaits them. Nelly wants to reunite with Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her husband, though Lene insists he betrayed her to save his Aryan self. Johnny just wants dough. He intends to pass this “stranger” off as his wife – who, he figures, surely died in the camp – so she can claim the inheritance due to Nelly, whose family was slaughtered by Nazis.
Swallowing this takes a lot of work. There’s no reason Nelly couldn’t have survived, and Johnny never asks her to prove who she is. He’s not surprised when she has memories of places they visited (because he assumes she saw photos in his home) or replicates Nelly’s handwriting after a few hours of practice (because he – well, no, that’s just stupid).
Yet the three performances, especially the sadly tender one by Hoss, keep us connected. We don’t know until the end whether Lene has some kind of hidden agenda – I wondered whether there might be a lesbian attraction – or whether Johnny really did love his wife. He might accidentally have revealed her hiding place to the Nazis, as Nelly knows.
You may have seen Hoss in the underrated “A Most Wanted Man,” playing the main aide to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s weary spy. She can be a femme fatale (try “Jerichow,” Petzold’s version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”), but here she’s anxious and fragile. As “Phoenix” reminds us, though, “fragility” and “weakness” need not be the same thing.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf.
Director: Christian Petzold.
Length: 98 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (some thematic elements and brief suggestive material).